Following the quake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, U.S. military family members board a flight from Yokota Air Base, Japan, bound for to Seattle.

Following the quake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, U.S. military family members board a flight from Yokota Air Base, Japan, bound for to Seattle. (Grant Okubo/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The military was working Wednesday to provide return air transportation to thousands of family members who fled to safe havens in the United States in the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan, according to base officials in the Tokyo area and Misawa.

The families are expected to return to their homes and military spouses over the next five days either by commercial flights into Tokyo or via the military’s Patriot Express commuter service, though some who have enrolled children in local schools in the U.S. might wait to finish the school year before returning.

The voluntary evacuations were an unexpected development in the sudden and deadly destruction that enveloped Japan for weeks following the March 11 earthquake. As the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant teetered on the edge of meltdown, many feared the crippled reactors could spew dangerous radiation across central Japan, prompting the Department of Defense to authorize flights and travel expenses for military dependents who decided to leave the country.

The department called an end to the voluntary evacuations on Friday.

“We expect the majority of our dependents to return by April 25, except for a few special circumstances such as [those] awaiting completion of a [school] semester for dependent children,” Capt. Tania Bryan, spokeswoman for Yokota Air Base, told Stars and Stripes via an e-mail response.

The first voluntary evacuees returned to the air base Tuesday evening, Bryan said.

For Yokota residents, most of the return transportation planning can be done through e-mail, she said.

A repatriation form available on the Air Force base’s website and a copy of a family’s orders can be sent to SATO Travel. The travel company then e-mails the family commercial airline tickets for the return flight, according to Bryan.

Those who are returning are also being asked to notify the Yokota Airmen and Family Readiness Center of their travel plans so the base can arrange enough transportation from Narita International airport in Tokyo to Yokota, she said.

Yokosuka Naval Base said it is using a similar system to bring families back.

Families there are being asked to contact their base sponsors about returning to Japan, and those sponsors will work with base pass coordinators and travel organizers such as SATO to issue return tickets, base spokeswomen Michelle Stewart said.

“We have people who don’t want to come back right away because they want to keep their kids in school and their [command pass coordinator] and sponsors need to know that information,” Stewart said.

Military welcome committees will be set up at Narita airport to help incoming military dependents with luggage and transportation, she said. The committees will be set up at the airport terminals and members will be in uniform.

Residents could begin returning to Naval Air Facility Atsugi on Thursday, also aboard commercials flights to Narita, base spokesman Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Panter said. The base will be doubling up on transport buses and trucks running from the airport, Panter said.

Meanwhile, Misawa Air Base in northern Japan will be bringing residents back over the next four days via the Patriot Express route.

The voluntary evacuees will be transported to Seattle from various locations across the U.S. and then take chartered commuter service flights back to the air base, Misawa spokeswoman Staff Sgt. Rachel Martinez said.

Patriot Express flights are scheduled April 21, 23 and 24, Martinez said. To schedule travel back to Japan, residents must complete a repatriation form and supply a copy of their evacuation orders to SATO Travel. Instructions are available here:

“People who do want to take advantage, we encourage them to get their info in as soon as possible,” Martinez said. “We don’t know if we will have any more of these contracted [flights] in the future.”

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